White Supremacy Isn’t a Fad, It’s a System

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With a newly, perhaps unlawfully, elected U.S. president gleefully endorsed by the KKK, we are going to have to get smarter about the way we talk about white supremacy.  I’ve been studying white supremacy for more than twenty-five years. Let me share with a few of the basics that I’ve learned from my research.

White Supremacy is not a “fad”

To begin, white supremacy is not a “fad.” The mannequin challenge is a fad. To suggest that white supremacy is a fad — as Kevin Drum recently did at Mother Jones — is to misunderstand the basic meaning of both “white supremacy” and “fad.”  

(updated 11/28 at 3:18pm) It seems that someone at Mother Jones changed the title of this insidious piece, but the URL still says “fad.”

And, no, Ta-Nehisi Coates did not “invent” the use of the term white supremacy. As even a cursory check of the Wikipedia entry would tell someone with an elementary-school level of intellectual curiosity, “white supremacy” has been used by academics as a term of critique for many decades by scholars writing in the tradition of critical race theory.

Coates did, however, eloquently point out why we have so much trouble with this particular issue:

The shame reflects an ugly and lethal trend in this country’s history—an ever-present impulse to ignore and minimize racism, an aversion to calling it by its name. For nearly a century and a half, this country deluded itself into thinking that its greatest calamity, the Civil War, had nothing to do with one of its greatest sins, enslavement. It deluded itself in this manner despite available evidence to the contrary. Lynchings, pogroms, and plunder proceeded from this fiction. Writers, journalists, and educators embroidered a national lie, and thus a safe space for the violent tempers of those who needed to be white was preserved.

We have a particular gift for embroidering our national lie when it comes to race, but it’s not particularly new.

 

White supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Some have called there is a  “the new white supremacy,” or that it’s experiencing an “awakening,” but white supremacy is not new to the U.S.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States, owned and enslaved people. At least one of those, Sally Hemings, he also raped and forced to bear six his children. Jefferson, of course, was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, and the worlds “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”but this self-evident truth did not apply to the men and women that he owned. Jefferson pondered whether those currently enslaved should be set free in his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he concluded that no, they shouldn’t be, when he wrote:

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

In this writing, Jefferson gave voice to what many liberal thinkers of the day believed about the inequality of the races: that white people were inherently superior to black people. That fact seemed obvious to Jefferson. Think this is all old news and no one is advocating for this kind of ideas? Think again.

As I pointed out in Cyber Racism (2009), banner images in regular rotation on the white supremacist portal Stormfront, regularly feature quotes and image from Thomas Jefferson that herald white superiority and connect their political cause to the founding fathers of the U.S.

jefferson at stormfront

Jefferson’s ideas of white supremacy got woven into the very fabric of the nation’s founding documents.  For example, the U.S. Constitution includes something known as the “three-fifths compromise,” which was an agreement worked out between white northern and southern lawmakers about how to count the  enslaved population. The northerners regarded slaves as property who should receive no representation. Southerners demanded that Blacks be counted as people, because it would strengthen their power in the newly created Congress. The compromise  allowed a state to count three fifths of each black person in determining political representation in the House. The Three-fifths Compromise would not be challenged again until the Dred Scott decision (1857), which held that “held that a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.”

So, yeah, white supremacy. It’s not new. It’s been part of the U.S. since the beginning.

White supremacy is a system.

White supremacy is a system that ensures some people, who are white, always end up with the lion’s share of resources. Here’s a more academic definition:

White supremacy is…a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”  (Frances Lee Ansley, “White supremacy (and what we should do about it”. In Richard Delgado; Jean Stefancic. Critical white studies: Looking behind the mirror. Temple University Press, 1997, p. 592.

From here, you could investigate any number of areas – wealth, income, educational achievement, occupations, housing, health, incarceration, crime – and find evidence that white people “overwhelmingly control power and material resources.” Here’s just one example in the area of wealth:

(Source: CNN Money, 2016: Why the racial wealth gap won’t go away)

 

There are lots of other examples, too. On white supremacy in housing, read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” about the very real, material impact of residential segregation and plunder in the form of subprime mortgages.  On the way white supremacy gets perpetuated in education, listen to the excellent reporting by Nikole Hannah Jones in “The Problem We All Live With.” For an account of the white supremacy in the criminal justice system is Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

These material aspects of white supremacy are justified by systems of thought. For understanding how science is implicated in white supremacy, read Dorothy Roberts’ Fatal Invention. And, for a broad understanding of how white supremacy frames our thinking, read Joe Feagin’s White Racial Frame.

 

But, calling the current system “white supremacy” makes me, as a white person, uncomfortable.

 

If you’re white, and talk of white supremacy makes you feel uncomfortable, you might want to do some self-reflection. Why is it that it makes you uneasy?

If you’re feeling especially defensive when talk turns to white supremacy, then you may be experiencing  “white fragility.” Robin D’Angelo coined this term to describe:

“an emotional state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

If you don’t think this applies to you, then you may want to investigate “white identity politics.” There seems to be a lot of that going around.

Typically, when people speak about identity politics – and especially the need to “move beyond identity politics” — they mean the racial identity of those who are Black or Latino. Implied in this use of the term “identity politics” is that white people are exist in a space that is safely removed from the politics of racial identity.

But, as Laila Lalami wrote recently in The New York Times:

This year’s election has disturbed that silence. The president-elect earned the votes of a majority of white people while running a campaign that explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety.

So, does this mean that all people who share a white racial identity are white supremacists? Not necessarily. Linda Martín Alcoff, in The Future of Whiteness, writes:

White identity poses almost unique problems for an account of social identity. Given its simultaneous invisibility and universality, whiteness has until recently enjoyed the unchallenged hegemony that any invisible contender in a ring full of visible bodies would experience. But is bringing whiteness into visibility the solution to this problem? Hasn’t the racist right done just that, whether it is the White Aryan Councils or theorists like Samuel Huntington who credit Anglo-Protestantism with the creation of universal values like freedom and democracy? In this [book], I show evidence of the increasing visibility of whiteness to whites themselves, and explore a variety of responses by white people as they struggle to understand the full political and historical meaning of white identity today. (read an excerpt here)

Alcoff holds out hope for that there will be more white people, like the ones she documents in her book, who have joined in common cause with people of color to fight slavery, racism, and imperialism, from the New York Conspiracy of 1741 to the John Brown uprising to white supporters of civil rights and white protesters against the racism of the Vietnam War.

Even so, those whites who have joined the resistance are still beneficiaries of a system of white supremacy. That’s the thing about systems. They keep on churning even when we wish they would stop.

What about the people in groups with the  _______  (funny outfits, tattoos, special symbols)? Aren’t they the real white supremacists?

 

There are people who form hate groups, or meet online to discuss the ideology of white supremacy. Sometimes, they wear outfits to signal group membership, like Klan robes or Nazi uniforms or Confederate flag symbols. Sometimes, they get tattoos that reflect their beliefs. According to research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 892 hate groups in the United States.

 

(Source: Southern Poverty Law Center)

 

The most common way to talk about white supremacy in the U.S. is to talk about those who identify, through clothing or tattoos, as members of these hate groups.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did extensive research on five of these groups (KKK, David Duke’s NAAWP, the Church of the Creator, Christian Identity, and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance). I analyzed hundreds of their newsletters and movement documents.

What I wrote in White Lies (1997) was that the white supremacist discourse produced by these extremist groups shared much in common with the kind of language that mainstream politicians used, that I saw in commercials created by Madison Avenue executives, in popular culture, and some of what was created by white academics.  I made this argument by comparing the text of extremist white supremacist documents with elements of mainstream culture, including images, like the ones below.

white men buildings men who built america

 

On the left, an image from the newsletter “White Aryan Resistance,” on the right, a recent image from The History Channel. Both carry with them a message of white supremacy – that white men built the nation, and therefore, are exclusively and especially entitled to it in some particular way. In that book, I argued that the extremist images are simply cruder versions of the same ideas that are slightly more polished in their mainstream political and popular culture versions.

Part of what has happened with the Trump campaign to “Make America Great Again,” has been a blending of the crudest possible white supremacist language (e.g., his claim that “Mexicans are rapists”) with a more mainstream appeals to white identity.

Certainly, people who swear allegiance to a Nazi flag or get white power tattoos should be a cause for concern, but so should politicians who threaten to deport millions of people who are not white Christians. Make no mistake, both are engaging in white supremacy.

But, they’re so dapper (or handsome or went to Harvard), they can’t possibly be white supremacists!

The rise of Trump and the far-right he has courted along his rise to power has created a new level of mainstream media interest in writing about white supremacy. Journalists, and their editors, want things that are “new.” That’s part of what makes something “news,” after all, is it’s newness.

So far, it’s not going very well.

 

There is a trend of think pieces on white supremacists that has declared one “dapper,” and another (retrospectively) “handsome,” comparing him to movie idol Robert Redford. This maddening trend has the effect, intentional or not, of normalizing white supremacy. It also reveals more about the white liberal reporters writing this story than it does about their subjects.

In my most generous interpretation of this trend, editors and journalists are trying to offer some “new” angle on the story of white supremacists. If this is the case, then what that means is that they are playing off the idea that white supremacy is relegated to those who are unattractive, uneducated, toothless, and living in a trailer park.  Thus, the “fresh, new” angle they can offer is the opposite of that image. The problem is that it doesn’t serve the reader or the public sphere because, in so doing, it validates their views as legitimate.

In a less generous read, these are predominantly white editors and journalists who are hobbled by the blindness of their own white identity. What the philosopher Charles Mills refers to as “the epistemology of ignorance,” fostered by the system of white supremacy. As white people, immersed in a system of white supremacy, we are like the fish who cannot see or understand water because it is everywhere. I doubt seriously that a journalist and editor who were both people of color would have published pieces on a “dapper” white supreamcist or the “fad” of white supremacy.

Why does understanding white supremacy matter now?

I hope this is obvious, but in case it’s not, let me offer one other important reason that understanding white supremacy now is more important than ever.  In a recent study, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education found that 82% of 203 students surveyed believed sponsored content was a real news story.

This is consistent with what I found in Cyber Racism (2009), when I asked young people (ages 15-19) if they could tell the difference between a “cloaked” white supremacist site, and an actual civil rights site. Most could not. So, one young person in my study, reading a white supremacist site that declared “slavery was good for some people,” responded: “well, maybe so, there’s two sides to everything.”

I hope you find this as chilling. We don’t want to go back to debating whether slavery was a moral evil or not, do we? If we don’t, then we have to get smarter about the way white supremacy operates, and how we fight against it.

Saying that white supremacy is a “fad” neither helps our understanding, nor the fight against it, but reveals the epistemology of ignorance that keeps white people from understanding the system we, ourselves, have built.

Trump’s Speech: Emoting White Supremacy

I just watched Donald J.Trump accept the GOP nomination and his speech was a delivery device for white supremacist rhetoric. Trump’s speech proved popular with that audience, as David Duke, noted white supremacist, tweeted his congratulations:

The language Trump used, terms like “too politically correct,” “law and order,” “war on police,” the “illegal immigrants spilling over” borders, murdering “innocent young girls,” and, of course, the repeated use of “our country” in an auditorium filled with whiter-shade-of-pale white people, are all dog whistles that signal a core white supremacist message: White people built this nation, white people are this nation.

Don’t believe me? Check this is line drawing:

white men buildings

The drawing originally appeared in Tom Metzger’s newsletter, W.A.R. (White Aryan Resistance), and I included it in my book, White Lies (Routledge, 1997).

Part of the argument I made in that book is that white supremacist rhetoric is gendered. That is, white men are viewed differently than white women. The second part is that the language used by extremists is actually echoed in the mainstream. So, for example, that image from Metzger is uncannily similar to this (recent) ad for a series on the History Channel:

men who built america

The message is the same in the extremist publication as in the television ad. Both put white people at the center of the narrative about the country’s history. (updated 9:10am to add:) This is also the same message that Steve King (R-IA) was making when he asked the (rhetorical) question: “where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”  And, Trump himself is a frequent re-tweeter of white supremacist accounts. One analysis estimates that a whopping 62% of Trump’s re-tweets are of accounts that have white supremacist connections.

Steve King on white people

 

It’s too easy to point and laugh at the white supremacists in the funny outfits (like Trump’s dad), while we fail to pay attention to the way white supremacy operates in our own institutions and families.

I called the book ‘white lies’ because such narratives distort the truth about whose labor actually built the wealth in this country: African, Latinx, Asian and Native people. That labor, and the wealth and products created by it, were routinely plundered by white people.

This is the lie of Trump’s speech, too.

As he would have it, white people (those in included in “our”) are somehow more entitled, deserving or worthy of being here than anyone else. It’s the idea at the heart of white supremacy. But, fact checking Trump doesn’t seem to be working..

One of the examples I used to make my case about the connection between extremist and more mainstream rhetoric was Pat Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech, which declared that there was a ‘culture war’ for the ‘soul of America.’

Pat Buchanan was once considered on the far-right of the Republican party, but in the past few years, the party – not to mention the country as a whole – has tilted far to the right. Buchanan’s once extreme views, are now regarded as mainstream. And, tonight, Trump delivered what amounted to a ‘dumbed down’ version of Buchanan’s 1992 speech.

What Trump is better at doing than most is emoting white supremacy. He’s galvanizing people based on feelings, not facts.

Trump wearing a hat

He ended his speech tonight with the repetition and variation on “Make America Great Again,” replacing great with Strong, Proud, and Safe. The fact that Trump’s message has been so effective with 14 million people suggests that there are lots of people who are feeling weak, ashamed, and afraid.

Sociologist Thomas Scheff, who studies emotions, argues that the emotion of ‘shame’ is perhaps the most powerful feeling and that it runs underneath many social problems. Most violence, he argues, is caused by a response to shame. It’s my guess that this undergirds much of Trump’s appeal, particularly around race. The line about “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” is a way of saying, “I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of the offensive things I say or do.”

Is there a political strategy to galvanize a set of emotions that run counter to the fear that he is spinning into political gold? I don’t know, but desperately wish I did.

Debunking White Supremacy

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The United States has always been a white supremacy that masquerades as a democracy. For white racists those are fighting words. How dare anyone cast aspersions on the motives of America’s founding fathers? For shame.

Describing the US as a white supremacy isn’t an ad hominem attack. It is simply a statement of fact. The only people in the room when the founders mapped out the contours of American democracy were greedy white guys. Is it any wonder that the only people who have enjoyed unrestricted access to American democracy throughout its history are greedy white guys?

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Women and people of color have always been on the outside looking in. The costs of being an outsider have been astronomical. America’s greedy white guys paved the way for continent-wide genocide and property theft — and every other person of color as persona non grata. Should anyone dispute America’s favoritism for white guys, I refer you to the Naturalization Act of 1790.

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Passed into law less than one year after the Constitution came into effect, the Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only “free whites” could become citizens of the United States. This law had the perverse effect of installing greedy white guys as the USA’s one and only “true natives.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 also de-naturalized peoples of color which summarily transformed Native Americans and other well-established occupant of North America into undocumented aliens in their own homeland.
The notion that the US is a white supremacy is contentious, but it shouldn’t be. White supremacy is an indisputable fact of the US Constitution specifies that the US will value people of color at a mere fraction of the value of its white male citizens:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution)

According to the Three-Fifths Compromise, the US views free white men as being equal in value to one whole human being. By contrast, the US views people of color as being worth somewhere between 0-⅗ the value of a whole human being. In sum, people of color are quantifiably inferior to their superior white counterparts. As long as such language remains an integral component of the US Constitution, the US will unequivocally remain a white supremacy. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the US Constitution is just a scrap of paper. If the US Constitution champions white supremacy, then it’s up to the champions of democracy to change the US Constitution. We can have democracy in the US, but first we have to debunk white supremacy. Science tells us that all humans are equal. White racists don’t like it, but the scientific truth is inescapable. All humans are equal. Not identical, but equal.

 

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White supremacy is a mean-spirited fiction that greedy white guys concocted to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. Democracy demands that we knock greedy white guys off of their pedestal. Although greedy white guys have often been unsparing with the violence that they inflict on “others,” I think it’s possible and preferable to knock greedy white guys off of their pedestal without violence.

Greedy white guys have warped American democracy into a white supremacy by dehumanizing women and people of color. So, if we’re going to knock greedy white guys down a peg, we need to remove their pedestal. Innocuous as it may seem, the Three-Fifths Compromise is the pedestal that greedy white guys have used to warp American democracy.

It won’t be easy, but I am convinced that if we can find some way to remove the Three-Fifths Compromise from the US Constitution we can we can bring an end to white supremacy in America. If we terminate white supremacy we can also, by extension, terminate the racism and other inequalities that emanate from white supremacy.

I think it’s worth a try. At the very least, it’s a way of knocking greedy white guys off of their pedestals.  That’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

 

~ Professor Tim McGettigan teaches sociology at Colorado State University-Pueblo and he writes books about social change. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Earl Smith, of A Formula for Eradicating Racism: Debunking White Supremacy. 

White Supremacy and Property Rights: Tamir Rice and the Oregon Standoff

 

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In a span of just four days, news headlines in the US illustrated different aspects of white supremacy.  In one headline, we learned that the police officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old, black child, as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, would face no charges in the young boy’s death. In another series of headlines a short time later, we watched a lenient, even nonchalant governmental response to a group of white, armed, anti-government protesters as they stormed the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Taken together, both highlight the importance of white property rights as a cornerstone in how white supremacy operates.

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The juxtaposition of the events in Ohio and Oregon illustrate white supremacy in the United States. .

On one hand, the killing of a child playing in a public space, the lack of aid rendered as he lay dying, and the assumption that he was much older than his young twelve years was justified through deeply established tropes that criminalized Tamir Rice’s black skin and that made him always already a suspect, even as a child.

On the other hand, Ammon Bundy and members of his white, anti-government militia, calling themselves “concerned citizens” while actively threatening to raise their arms against the federal government, are entitled to supply demands, press conferences, and a “wait and see” response by officials.

But the significance of recent events in Oregon extends beyond this obvious example of the differential treatment of racial groups by the state. We argue the events at the Oregon wildlife refuge are representative of what Arlo Kempf describes as a “colonial moment,” one that bolsters white supremacy and violence against people of color, as well as the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. settler state.

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The concept of settler colonialism emphasizes the ongoing occupation and privatization of Indigenous territories and the systems of race necessary to sustain the displacement and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. From this perspective, colonization is not an event of the past, but rather an enduring process that continuously unfolds across the landscape. Colonial moments normalize white domination and the racial status quo by obscuring histories of racial violence and exploitation and by reinforcing largely unquestioned assumptions about white settler property ownership and entitlement to stolen lands.

For some, the Bundys – both Ammon and his father Cliven – have become folk heroes for their efforts to reclaim federally owned and regulated land and for resisting the overbearing, ‘tyrannical’ federal government. However, as the chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribe, Charlotte Rodrique, has explicitly stated, the Paiute peoples had been living on these lands for thousands of years prior to the arrival of white settlers. Deep ironies abound as the militia members demand that the federal government return the land to ranchers, loggers, and miners after claiming the federal government had usurped their rights.

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Though it’s quite easy to dismiss the Bundys, their followers, and other white militias in the American West as a “radical fringe” group with a poor understanding of U.S. history, we believe that to do so would be ill informed. Not only is the Oregon standoff part of a much broader political, economic, and social movement rooted in individual private property rights and undergirded by white supremacy, the event – and popular reactions to it – sustain particular understandings of whiteness and land ownership that render invisible the displacement and exploitation of people of color that enabled white settlement and the acquisition of federal lands in this area in the first place.

 

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Though Oregon is popularly known as one of the whitest states in the nation and parodied for its left leaning politics and liberal views, less widely known is how the state’s contemporary racial geography was forged through racist policies at a variety of scales (municipal, state, federal) that facilitated indigenous land appropriation, racial exclusion and marginalization, and labor exploitation. Through federal homestead policy and land acts that transferred lands appropriated from Indigenous peoples to individual white settlers, and aided by Indigenous dispossession and genocide, Whites assumed ownership of the area’s most productive land and built their local infrastructure and economy with Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican immigrant labor.

The Oregon Donation Land At (1850), for example, allowed free land only to whites. In Oregon, 10,513,945 acres (17 percent of total lands) were homesteaded following the 1862 Homesteading Act and its subsequent iterations. Racial exclusion laws passed in 1849 and 1854 prevented blacks from living in Oregon Territory. These exclusions were written into the state’s first constitution in 1859, which made Oregon the only free state in the Union with a black exclusion clause Furthermore, when Oregon statehood was declared, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were prevented from owning land or holding mining claims. Oregon’s 1901 anti-miscegenation statute nullified and criminalized marriage between whites and people of color, making the offense punishable by imprisonment.

As is clear, discourses about land rights in the American West continue to obscure and naturalize the ongoing displacements of Native Peoples and policies of racial subjugation and exclusion that produced the racial and class makeup and patterns of land ownership in contemporary Oregon. As a colonial moment, the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge shores up this racial framework. Bundy’s sense of history and his “right” to claim land on behalf of “the people” demonstrates the continued centrality of settler colonialism and white supremacy in the United States.

Thinking about the killing of Tamir Rice together with the Oregon standoff reveals the contours of white supremacy and the ways in which social condition of whiteness – what it means to be white in America – is so deeply entwined histories of violence, marginalization, and dispossession that have rendered some lives more valuable than others.

White men making claim to their “private property” rights are “patriots”, while black children playing in public spaces are reasonable threats to life and property.

 

~ This post was written by Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood.  Bonds is and Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research focuses on gendered, raced, and classed inequality and the politics of economic development. Inwood is an Associate Professor of Geography and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research focuses on race, racism and the continuing significance of white supremacy for understanding the US.

White Supremacism as Meme: How Reddit is Breeding a New Generation of Violent Racism

“4chan is leaking.” This is what users of the link sharing website Reddit say when they see a certain sort of comment, typically a personal anecdote that begins plausibly but rapidly escalates into the outlandish and the perverse. It is a style characteristic of some of the message boards of 4chan, a more insular online forum whose community is drawn towards entertainment of the more shocking and/or titillating variety. To say that 4chan is leaking is to identify a Redditor as being a member of both communities, a dual citizen who carries to Reddit the distinctive discourse of 4chan.

If 4chan leaks then Reddit floods. In Facebook statuses, comment sections, and twitter streams the signifiers of Reddit abound, proliferated by its users. Sometimes it is the signature constellation of interests and topics that reveal a Redditor. She might be relaying some pithy slogan about the importance of digital freedom, the cultural significance of bacon, or the deeply flawed nature of Internet Explorer. Or she might be saying “For science!” or “tl;dr…” or “So brave!” or “I see what you did there!” or “I, for one, welcome our new _____ overlords,” or “Shut up and take my money!” or “An’ Frankly, I did Nazi that coming!” or “Faith in humanity restored!” or any of the other phrases peculiar to Reddit.

It is a strange feature of human sociality that a person’s online activity is revealed in her speech. We conceive of ourselves as free agents, yet channel the expressions and ideas of our associates to the point where our words serve as recognizable signs of group membership. In such communal expressions we see that culture is not merely an explanation for the strangeness of distant others, but, rather, is something universal, manifested in all of us.

But how does the community come to modify and inflect our behavior in this way? The answer lies in the iconography of Reddit, the pictures and bold white capital letters of the Internet meme. In the context of the Internet, a meme is an image or type of image accompanied by a caption that follows a formula particular to the meme. The classic example is the lolcat, a meme wherein text is superimposed over a picture of a cat to describe its present state from its own, half-witted perspective: “I can has prom date?” asks the kitten wearing the bow tie.

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On Reddit, visitors will see more contemporary memes, ones particular to the site. Inarticulate cats have been replaced by a set of characters that pass on bits of Reddit conventional wisdom via macro text. Some relay explicit advice while others pick out everyday moments that are common but not often discussed, the airing of which lets viewers feel a shared sense of experience. It’s a new package on an old tradition, the latest not-so-funny reincarnation of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed…” monologues. More importantly, these images embody Reddit’s close association with “memes” as understood in a more technical sense: ideas (or behavior) that replicates through non-genetic transmission.

Reddit is an ideal platform for meme transmission. According to a recent Pew Poll, six percent of all American adults who use the Internet are Reddit users. This sizable audience represents an army of potential hosts for memes—a potential that is readily converted into actualized adoption and propagation via the participatory nature of Reddit. By having the audience contribute all of its content, Reddit encourages people to not merely consume its devices and truisms but to adopt them as their own, to internalize and redisseminate them like an animal regurgitating a recent meal so as to eat it again.

 

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This recursive process is powered by a democratic points system wherein Redditors are awarded “karma” for each “upvote” that their submitted content receives. Content that draws a high number of upvotes will then float to the top of the site, giving it greater visibility. Through this system, Redditors are incentivized to post the content that they believe will garner upvotes—and the surest method for achieving this end is to mimic what has been successful in the past.

 

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The most brazen form of content mimesis is the “repost,” where a Redditor resubmits someone else’s highly-upvoted content in the hope that it will be highly-upvoted once again. Beyond this blatant duplication, however, there are countless shades of karma-seeking imitation, ranging from the repackaging of a popular idea to the use of a popular package for a new idea. Thus, while only a few users resort to exact imitation, Reddit nonetheless ends up filled with the repeated catchphrases and concepts of the meme.

The spread of such concepts beyond the parameters of Reddit reflects the platform’s unparalleled ability to incubate memes. With its millions of users, the site has a huge pool of contributing talent to generate the content from which a meme might emerge. At the same time, the voting system provides users with near-instant feedback, allowing them to refine their submissions and perfect their intuitive sense of what will go viral. And, since the most popular content also becomes the most visible, users are provided with a gold standard to mimic and draw upon for inspiration. This combination results in a site capable of churning out highly-seductive and transmissible catchphrases—ones so powerful that they have spread far beyond the boundaries of Reddit to the anglophonic culture at large.

Indeed, the memes of Reddit are bred so strong that they easily displace locally-grown culture, filling up individuals’ cultural vocabularies at the expense of their own unique or subcultural expressions and ideas. The result is a striking homogenization of culture wherein New York Times columnists parrot the idioms of webcomics made by pre-teens, categories like the fedora-wearing “neckbeard” are widely-shared, and Reddit observations like the trite “deliciousness of bacon” meme are near-impossible to avoid. Although there are few quantitative measures that might confirm the observation, Redditisms seem ubiquitous in the broader cultural discourse to the point where they have begun to drown out localized cultural variation and diversity.

Whether this growing homogeneity seems worthy of lament will vary according to one’s taste. For those who thrive on novelty and originality, the Redditization of culture is a disaster, with cultural content devolving into an endless repetition of the same set of tired banalities. By contrast, those who enjoy familiarity and the sense of community that comes with shared expression will find comfort in a cultural world bound together by interlacing memes.

Such evenhandedness is harder to muster when it comes to Reddit’s mimetic influence on politics. Just as pictures of cats and affirmation of bacon circulate as memes, so, too, do ideology and political argument. Bits of reasoning are picked up and redeployed in debates by those who find them clarifying or whose presuppositions the arguments support. This circulation of ideas is particularly visible on Reddit where the same debates are had over and over again, each successive iteration providing participants with the opportunity to refine their arguments and try out whatever new ones they have picked up in the intervening period. The most appealing of these get then get upvoted, and the same meme-generating process that spews catch-phrases across the Internet manifests itself again, now with arguments as its object.

Were Reddit an ideologically-diverse site, the mimetic process might be understood as making dialectical progress, with different schools of thought co-evolving to the point where perhaps some reconciliation might be reached. In point of fact, however, the overwhelming majority of Redditors share a narrow set of ideological presuppositions—the result being a site that more closely resembles a crowd-sourced think tank generating ever more infectious arguments for dissemination to the masses.

Most of the ideologies promoted by Reddit are fairly benign—e.g., anti-interventionism, science-based skepticism, support for marijuana legalization, a distaste for intellectual property, and others. Reddit is not, as some have so glibly misdescribed it, a collection of “Ayn Rand Spark Notes,” but, rather, leans strongly towards economic populism, with large quantities of scorn regularly heaped on those who espouse even the slightest hint of Randianism or principled libertarianism. In more general terms, the Reddit Consensus lies somewhere on the leftward side of the Democratic Party with the average Redditor concerned about inequality, in favor of LGBT rights, and supportive of government spending and moderate redistribution.

What is troubling, though, is that such innocuous politics now coexist with a rising tide of racism that is slowly engulfing the site. Reddit has long been reactionary when it comes to the politics of race and gender, but typically that has taken the more-moderate form of the privileged person who petulantly drags his feet in resistance to the implication that he has done something wrong or is the beneficiary of injustice. Thus, while the average Redditor might have habitually bashed the /r/ShitRedditSays subreddit—a subforum whose subscribers call out problematic attitudes and speech—his attacks often seemed motivated more by a fear of one day being an ShitRedditSays target than an affirmation of sexist or racist tenets. Thus, while Redditors have disappointingly exhibited a greater ability to empathize with those who might be publicly embarrassed for holding oppressive opinions than those actually oppressed by such opinions, popular regard for the opinions themselves has always seemed limited to a few extremist subreddits.

Recently, however—and particularly on the subject of race—Reddit seems to be increasingly dominated by argument-memes that are explicitly anti-egalitarian with respect to identity. Whether it is the frequent discussions of “black crime,” KKK apologism (related: holocaust apologism), or just explicit bigotry, the comments on Reddit when race is brought up have come to resemble those found on explicitly white supremacist forums. Though difficult to quantify, it is a trend that many Redditors have noted—a proliferation of racism that appears to be less of an outside invasion than an internal mutation which, by means of mimesis, has spread like cancer throughout the body. Meanwhile, antiracists appear to have largely retreated from the most popular subreddits, abandoning the bulk of Reddit territory to their antagonists.

This process has been fueled by an active core of racist ideologues who devote significant time and attention to proselytizing on Reddit. These demagogues—who inhabit subreddits with charming names like /r/whiterights, /r/whitepride, and /r/niggers—seek to piggyback on Reddit’s anti-PC sentiment by passing off pernicious stereotypes as “I’m going to hell for this”-type jokes. And, of course, any time the white supremacist trope of “black crime” can be worked into a discussion, these extremists will be on hand to insert their propaganda.

These tactics are further augmented by “brigading”—a Reddit term for when an organized group of ideological Redditors swarm a given thread and vote up the comments they agree with and downvote those that contradict their views. Though the practice is officially outlawed on Reddit, it is difficult to prevent, and is proven in its effectiveness when it comes to swaying popular opinion. One recent study has shown that that people are more likely to upvote something that has already received an upvote—particularly when the subject pertains to politics, culture, and society. The implication is that brigading influences how people perceive a comment’s quality; by upvoting arguments en masse, ideological Redditors can make their views seem popular, reasonable, and moderate. At the same time, downvoting comments makes them less visible, effectively burying opposing views under ideologically-favorable material.

 

(A variant of this meme was once highly-upvoted on Reddit. Image Source)

 

While certain subreddits brigade spontaneously in knee-jerk outrage, the racists of Reddit have explicitly embraced the tactic as a means of popularizing their message. Indeed, the Reddit administrators recently banned /r/niggers for repeatedly and unapologetically engaging in the practice, while blocking some of the more vitriolic users from the site entirely. Whether the bans have been effective in curbing the racist brigades is unclear. However, even if effective, they seem too little, too late, with racist vote manipulation having apparently already established a grassroots racism that renders the practice superfluous.

Even more concerning is the possibility that the racist ideology on Reddit will be translated into violent practice. Reddit’s tendency to spawn outrage and malicious mobs is already well-documented. The medium is conducive to such behavior, spawning outrage through decontextualization. On Reddit, interested parties can present their side of the story as though it were the whole truth—a limited framing that obscures the complexity and mitigating factors that might exonerate the accused. In this way, complex human conflicts arising from legitimate differences are too often reduced to the sort of morality plays capable of inciting self-righteous mobs to seek vengeance. Combine this tendency with engrained racism and one cannot help but worry that IRL lynch mobs might emerge once again.

 

(Image source)

If this seems alarmist, consider the recent Reddit thread with the Stormfront-worthy title “Racist black kids bully white toddler” that had to shutter the comments section due to witch-hunting and the revelation of personal information. Or, the fact that when a video circulated of a (black) security guard tossing out a belligerent (black) woman and tasering her, Redditors heavily upvoted a post stating “If someone tells me this is black culture…. it needs to be eradicated,” before donating over $23,000 to better arm and equip him. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder, a white supremacist member of neighboring 4chan’s fringe-right /pol/ board hacked into Martin’s email in an effort to discredit the slain teen and exonerate his killer. These examples are just some of the more visible incidents and, while some are more clear-cut instances of violent white supremacism than others, they all lend substantial credence to the idea that an increasingly-racist Reddit might give rise to more organized racial harassment.

Beyond this terror, there is no small disappointment in witnessing the co-optation of what is otherwise a striking technological platform. On Reddit, millions of people with wildly different backgrounds come together to exchange ideas and debate politics as equals (insofar as one’s identity is protected). In this respect, it is an impressive realization of democratic communicative potential, the logical conclusion of the process that was first sparked by the invention of the printing press or even the written word. The fact that white supremacists have managed to subvert this emerging communicative space to further racial hatred is mortifying.

Yet the struggle for the future of Reddit—and, by extension, the public sphere—is not over. The political left has devoted much time and attention to critiquing Reddit, but it now needs to embrace the forum—to upvote early and often so as to sway the undecided away from the fringe right. At the same time, the comments section on Reddit provides the unique opportunity of reaching millions of people who would never think to pick up a copy of Dissent from a newsstand. The white supremacists are already capitalizing on this captive audience. It’s time the left pushed back.

 

~ Guest blogger Jesse Elias Spafford (@jessespafford) is a research assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at The George Washington University. He enjoys writing about power, politics, and culture.

 

Dark Arts: Stormfront, Lacan and White Supremacy

One of the most-viewed topics on the white supremacist forum Stormfront—second only to a collection of the tenets of National Socialism—is a catalogue of “ethnic crime.” To anyone who has spent enough time reading online comments, the popularity of the subject will not come as a surprise. Any time that a member of a minority group appears in the media as the perpetrator of a crime, a vocal core of commenters emerges to point out the offender’s ethnicity, using the observation as a springboard for introducing a slew of canned statistics regarding minority crime rates. These talking points have become a fixation, an expression of what racists consider to be a profound truth: that non-white individuals commit a disproportionate amount of crime.

 

(God Speed! by Edmund Leighton)

 

Of course, the demagogues will gleefully rebuff any accusations of racism, insisting that they are, in fact, scientists, courageously presenting facts to illuminate the social world. This is nonsense, but to see why requires shifting attention from what was mentioned to that which was omitted. While there is undeniably a correlation between ethnicity and crime, there are many such correlations that go miraculously overlooked in these discussions. Males, for example, commit an overwhelming proportion of all crime, but you will never see one of these ersatz sociologists taking the time to point out just how overrepresented men are in the criminal justice system. In other words, the move from observing criminality to discussing the perpetrator’s ethnicity is not an inevitable one, but, rather, a careful emphasis of one particular property among many. As such, the mention of race should not be mistaken for authentic sociological curiosity, as it is, in fact, a conscious ontological choice motivated by underlying racist ideology.

The comments display a relationship between evidence and mindset analogous to psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan’s case of the jealous husband. Lacan argues that the husband who, through persistent investigation, uncovers proof that his wife is cheating on him, exhibits pathological behavior despite being vindicated by the facts. His jealousy is a pathology because the suspicion predates the evidence: the husband would be driven to hunt for evidence of infidelity regardless of whether there was any reason for him to think that his wife was having an affair. Given this disconnect from the facts, the important question for Lacan becomes investigating what it is that motivates the husband’s jealousy. What underlying psychological features give rise to an ungrounded suspicion that seeks confirmation?

The commenters who sort crime statistics by race are akin to the jealous husband in that they are not driven to a theory by the evidence, but in search of evidence to support their theory. Crime stories act as Rorschach tests, revealing latent ideology through what is perceived and emphasized. In theft, liberals will see the consequences of poverty while anarchists see its rectification; in violent crime, gender theorists will notice the masculinity while racists will emphasize the ethnicity, an ontological choice reflecting both their pre-held conviction of racial superiority and their desire to spread that belief to others.

One must then ask the same question of the white supremacist that Lacan does of the jealous husband: since the racism of the former is not derived from evidence and, instead, pathologically seeks corroboration, then what is its origin? What draws a person to racial superiority if not the facts? To answer these questions, it is necessary to turn away from the empirical to face the cultural, shifting focus from the news-based Stormfront threads to one in which members post pictures of their favorite pieces of visual art. It is a popular discussion that, while dominated by a few contributors, contains a set of clear patterns with the potential to reveal the inner workings of the racist mind. In the aesthetic preferences of the white supremacists, the attraction of their ethos becomes understandable, the posted images reflecting the psychological rewards that lead people to adopt the ideology in the first place.

The first sort of recurrent image is the depiction of white culture. Included within this category are paintings of attractive Aryan women with blonde, braided hair; Germanic parents telling stories to children or teaching them how to garden; depictions of Roman and Greek architecture; and Rockwellian images of segregation-era civic life. These paintings and photographs capture a sense of cultural value, an aesthetic of existence historically associated with white skin and, in the racist mind, necessarily so. The images have been chosen because they depict what white supremacists are proud of: an intuitively noble way of living that they wish to claim for themselves via their phenotype.

Interspersed among these images are the landscapes. While it is easy to discount these paintings as unimaginative filler, they, too, shed light on the allure of racism. Notably they depict not merely nature, but its intersection with civilization, juxtaposing the untamed dangers of the wild with the safe havens of human habitation. Repeatedly featured are small hamlets nestled among imposing mountains, wagon trains voyaging across the desolate plains, and ships battered by raging seas. In The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton proposes that an aesthetic preference for safe environments would confer a distinct evolutionary advantage on those early humans who possessed it. While their philistine counterparts wandered off into dangerous territory, the aesthetes would be lured out of harm’s way, their survival allowing them to produce offspring who shared their disposition. In the landscapes favored by white supremacists, we see this evolutionary preference manifested. They are the scenes that Dutton argued humans are predisposed to find attractive, where the evidence of human presence implies safety in the face of inhospitable wilderness.

From such an evolutionary perspective, we can see how the landscapes introduce an element of aesthetic danger into the thread, a sense of peril that can’t help but inject itself into the depictions of “white culture.” The connection between the domestic scene of a white family and the little cottage in the valley is quite literal: it is hard to not imagine the former inhabiting the latter—and from there, a more metaphorical reading follows. It is not merely that white people are aboard the ship being battered by the ocean, but that “white culture” is this ship, a small safe haven in an otherwise dangerous and barbaric world. Taken together, the landscapes and cultural images convey the unmistakable impression that “white culture” is something to be protected, a bastion of civilization in an otherwise-savage environment.

This narrative finds its completion in the images of mythic heroism that permeate the thread. It is a category comprised of paintings featuring subjects risking personal annihilation in order to defend their way of life against foreign invaders: knights wish maidens farewell before riding off into battle, American colonists bravely fire shots at the British, and, most significantly, one army after the next charges into battle to slay the conspicuously dark hordes who threaten them. Here the danger facing those little ships and villages is made tangible, the destructive power of the ocean embodied in these evil armies who would raze every remnant of civilization if given the chance. The brave soldiers depicted are all that stands between the mindless violence of these savages and the safety and virtuosity of “white culture.”

That these images appeal to white supremacists does much to explain their radical politics. Here we see a group of people who have a strong attraction to the motif of the hero, the protector who defends a community from the forces of darkness and evil. For those seeking a sense of purpose and meaning, these white knights offers a particular vision of what it means to be a protagonist, one that easily overlays onto the contours of contemporary political life. One must merely identify a culture that seems besieged and position oneself in opposition to whatever is perceived as threatening. The only question is which group to affiliate with—a lacuna that, for the unimaginative, is most easily filled by the white supremacist narrative. It is the facile choice, one obvious in both its historical prominence and its childishly literal reading of metaphorical struggles between light and darkness. Rather than develop novel or sophisticated views of group conflict, white supremacy allows would-be heroes to follow the path of least mental resistance to the clash of civilizations already formulated in the pages of Mein Kampf or The Lord of the Rings.

This proposition—that hero envy underlies a significant portion of racist thought—is supported not merely by the far Right’s obsession with  “ethnic crime,” but also its general preoccupation with victimhood. That a dominant and heavily privileged group would take so seriously the minor incursions of “reverse racism” seems bizarre until it becomes clear that such “threats” are essential to sustaining the perception that white people are in danger and, thus, in need of heroes to boldly protect them. Absent such encroaching peril, white supremacists are at risk of being revealed for what they truly are: self-important shills who oppress others to advance the interests of an arbitrary phenotype.

To confront racism, then, we must pass over the endless empirical debates and, instead, lay siege to the mythos. We should contest that race is a significant category—why fight for one’s race rather than one’s socioeconomic class?—or even a stable one: who exactly counts as “white?” Watching white supremacists debate these questions gives the distinct impression of adversaries tugging at the threads that threaten to unravel an uneasy truce. More challenging, however, is creating alternative conceptions of heroism that are not built upon zero-sum conflict between different groups. At their best, antifa movements act as just such an outlet, allowing young people to channel their heroic aggression towards universalist causes. Unfortunately, for those vulnerable to the temptation of racism, the far Left probably holds little appeal. If we are to divert these individuals, we must develop something new, an alternative aesthetic that provides a sense of purpose without necessitating the subjugation of others. While this is a daunting challenge, it is perhaps the best chance we have to undermine ideologies of hate. As tempting as it is to try to dissuade racists by presenting them with statistics and evidence, to do so is to merely grapple with the fringes of their racist paranoia. Only through art can we eliminate the pathology at its source.

 

~ Jesse Elias Spafford, BA, is a recent graduate of Pomona College, and currently works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

Martin Luther King: Speech about South Africa

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I wanted to share one of King’s lesser known speeches, about South Africa.   In the speech, delivered at my institution Hunter College in 1965 (h/t colleague Larry Shore), King addresses media portrayals of Africa as ‘barbaric,’  the institution of white supremacy in South Africa, the connection between black Americans and Africa, and the hope of progressive political action between blacks and whites.

mlk

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Dakota Blue Harper)

In the opening of his 1965 speech, given on Human Rights Day (December 10), King addresses the common stereotype about Africa and calls out the system of white supremacy:

“Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians. We are in an era in which the issue of human rights is the central question confronting all nations. In this complex struggle an obvious but little appreciated fact has gained attention-the large majority of the human race is non-white-yet it is that large majority which lives in hideous poverty. While millions enjoy an unexampled opulence in developed nations, ten thousand people die of hunger each and every day of the year in the undeveloped world. To assert white supremacy, to invoke white economic and military power, to maintain the status quo is to foster the danger of international race war . . . What does the South African Government contribute to this tense situation? These are the incendiary words of the South African philosophy spoken by its Prime Minister, Dr. Verwoerd: “We want to keep South Africa white. Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely, white domination, not ‘leadership’, not ‘guidance’, but control, supremacy.”

The South African Government to make the white supreme has had to reach into the past and revive the nightmarish ideology and practices of nazism. We are witnessing a recrudescence of the barbarism which murdered more humans than any war in history. In South Africa today, all opposition to white supremacy is condemned as communism, and in its name, due process is destroyed; a medieval segregation is organized with twentieth century efficiency and drive; a sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty; the dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”

Few people celebrating King’s legacy today realize that in addition to being a civil right leader in the U.S., King also saw that struggle as connected to other struggles for human rights around the globe.  King was also presciently aware of the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and the system in South Africa, several decades before anti-apartheid became a popular political movement here.     King goes on the speech to highlight a Pan-African sensibility, explicitly drawing connections between the continent of Africa and, in the language of his day, “the American Negro.”  He goes on to extend the struggle to include whites as well:

“For the American Negro there is a special relationship with Africa. It is the land of his origin. It was despoiled by invaders; its culture was arrested and concealed to justify white supremacy. The American Negro’s ancestors were not only driven into slavery, but their links with their past were severed so that their servitude might be psychological as well as physical. In this period when the American Negro is giving moral leadership and inspiration to his own nation, he must find the resources to aid his suffering brothers in his ancestral homeland. Nor is this aid a one-way street. The civil rights movement in the United States has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nation’s. The fact that black men govern States, are building democratic institutions, sit in world tribunals, and participate in global decision-making gives every Negro a needed sense of dignity.

In this effort, the American Negro will not be alone. As this meeting testifies, there are many white people who know that liberty is indivisible. Even more inspiring is the fact that in South Africa itself incredibly brave white people are risking their careers, their homes and their lives in the cause of human justice. Nor is this a plea to Negroes to fight on two fronts. The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world; it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength. Because this is true, when men of good will finally unite, they will be invincible.”

On this day, on what would have been Dr. King’s 82nd birthday, we still need those of good will to finally unite in the cause of human justice.

If you’d like to know more about the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and in South Africa, I recommend any of the books by George Frederickson on this subject, including the classic White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1982).    And, if you’d like to learn more about the connections between U.S. and South Africa, I encourage you to check out Larry Shore and Tami Gold’s documentary, RFK in the Land of Apartheid: Ripple of Hope.

Analysis: “The McVeigh Tapes”

Tonight, MSNBC aired “The McVeigh Tapes,” a television documentary about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Lou Michel, author of American Terrorist, recorded the interviews with McVeigh while he was in prison awaiting execution. The description of the piece from MSNBC’s site says:

“Drawing from 45 hours of never-before-released interview audiotapes recorded during McVeigh’s prison stay, the film reveals the bomber’s descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack and offers insight into how a decorated American soldier became a dangerous, anti-government terrorist.”

The show did much more of the former, focusing almost exclusively on “descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack” and very little on “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist.  The 2-hour news show was a standard re-enactment of the events leading up to the attack.   There were two elements to the story that made it cable-television-worthy: 1) the audio tapes and 2) the computer graphics in which an actor played Tim McVeigh, and then graphic artists altered the face to look more or less like McVeigh.   Personally, I found the computer graphics distracting (my partner said “it’s working for me,” so clearly, people disagree on how effective these were).   The really compelling story at the heart of this, though, was the juxtaposition of McVeigh’s cold, emotionless voice recounting his actions set against the horrific damage done to the victims, many of them children.   People today in Oklahoma City continue to walk through the pain that he left in their lives, either through injuries that linger or through the grief they continue to carry for loved ones.   For his part, the McVeigh in the tapes is beyond remorseless, he’s “content and peaceful” that he has succeeded in carrying out his plot to take as many people with him as possible in his “state-assisted suicide.”

The events of April 19, 1995 are methodically retold here with little that’s actually new.  There is an enormous amount of detail on how they (McVeigh and his accomplice Nichols) built the bomb inside the rented Ryder truck, so much detail in fact, that I winced while listening to it wondering if it were offering a blueprint for others watching the show.  This reenactment is serviceable enough, as such things go, but not really compelling television.  The reason that I, and I suspect millions of others, tuned in was for the second part of the tease – the “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist bit.   This is where viewers with any interest in the racial ideology that motivated McVeigh will be disappointed because it is a story completely denuded of any discussion of race.

At the time of the bombing, Timothy McVeigh was not officially a member of any white supremacist group.  Yet, he was radicalized by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a dystopian white supremacist novel written by William Pierce under the pseudonym “Andrew McDonald.”  The Turner Diaries depicts a violent revolution and race war, that leads to the elimination of all Jews, non-whites and ‘white race traitors.’   In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, an article in The New York Times called the novel “explicitly racist and anti-Semitic.”  The article in The New York Times went on to note that the Oklahoma City bombing had been “foretold” in this “Bible of the Extreme Right.” One of the central ideas in The Turner Diaries and in white supremacist ideology is the equivalency of “government” with “Jewish interests,” or simply “Jews.”    In fact, in this rhetoric the federal government is often referred to as “Z.O.G.” which stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.”  The language about “anti-government” in white supremacist rhetoric is almost always code for “anti-Jewish.”  A key theme in this racial ideology is that “Z.O.G.” is trying to ruin the white race by encouraging “race-mixing” (marriage and children across racial lines).

The importance of this text to McVeigh’s radicalization as a white supremacist terrorist cannot be underestimated.  According to reports at the time and from monitoring organization, ADL, in the days before the bombing, McVeigh mailed a letter to his sister warning that “something big is going to happen,” and sent her an envelop with clippings from The Turner Diaries. When she learned of her brother’s arrest in connection with the bombing, McVeigh’s sister burned the clippings.   F.B.I. agents also found a copy of a passage from The Turner Diaries in the car McVeigh drove on the day of the bombing.  And, during the bombing trial, several of McVeigh’s friends testified that he had sent them copies of Pierce’s novel with notes encouraging them to read it. Testimony also showed that McVeigh sold The Turner Diaries and Hunter, Pierce’s follow-up to The Turner Diaries, at weekend gun shows.  One of the chief reasons McVeigh went from being an American soldier to a terrorist is because he read The Turner Diaries.

So, if we viewers were interested in understanding “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist, it seems that at least some discussion of The Turner Diaries and the white supremacist ideology behind it would be in order.   Not so in “The McVeigh Tapes,” In the 2-hour show, there’s one glimpse of the computer-graphic-McVeigh sitting on his bunk while in the army reading a copy of The Turner Diaries, yet no mention at all of race or antisemitism or white supremacy.    All descriptors of McVeigh’s ideology are scripted as “his anti-government views,” a description that is misleading for the half-truth it tells.

This omission of any discussion of race is so systematic and total throughout the 2-hours of the film that it must be intentional.  The question is why?  Why intentionally leave out this important element in understanding how McVeigh became a terrorist?

The best answer I (and those in discussion on Twitter hashtag #OKC) came up with is that MSNBC has a primarily white audience that is uncomfortable with discussions of race, racism, antisemitism or white supremacy.  While perfectly capable of listening to a discussion about “anti-government views,” the explicit, straightforward discussion of the racial ideology that animated McVeigh and inspired his horrific act is too much for us as a nation.  As @Sonyers put this to me: “A lot of people don’t have the courage to see the reality of race. It’s ugly and powerful.” I guess that’s true.  It’s a shame though.  We could understand more if we had an analysis that included a critical understanding of race. Specifically, we could understand more – not less -if we had an analysis of the racial ideology of The Turner Diaries how it “foretold” the Oklahoma City bombing.

What “The McVeigh Tapes,” leaves us with is a description of the excruciating detail of each minute leading up to that moment on April 19th, 1995 but almost no analysis of what would prompt a young, white, man to target a federal building with a daycare center in it, or why so many would rally today, in 2010, to “celebrate” that heinous act fifteen years ago.

Global Racial Inequality Keeps Children Away From School

Around the world, children from ethnic, racial and linguistic minorities are being left behind in the quest for universal education, according to Lauren Feeney, multimedia producer for PBS’s documentary television series, Wide Angle.   Feeney explains that the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a set of targets for international development agreed to at the turn of the millennium, call for universal primary education by 2015.  While some progress has been made towards that goal in the last decade — today, nearly 90 percent of children are enrolled in primary school, compared to 85 percent in 2000.

Even as that is a victory to celebrate, there remain 75 million children are still out of school; and of those, the majority are children from racial and ethnic minority groups.  Although the U.N. doesn’t track progress based on racial or ethnic criteria, but a new report from Minority Rights Group International estimates that between 50 and 70 percent of out of school children are from minority and indigenous populations.

This kind of racial inequality exists around the globe, in Latin America, in Australia, in Africa, in India and in Europe.  As Joe wrote here recently, the treatment of Roma in Europe is one that is steeped in racism that few are willing to face.  Indeed, speaking out about their treatment prompted crowds to boo pop-icon Madonna for speaking out in support of them.  When it comes to the treatment of the Roma, and how Roma children are doing meeting the Millennium Development Goals, it’s difficult to tell.   Fenney writes that most reports on the Millennium Development Goals don’t bother to track progress in highly developed countries such as those in the European Union, which Romania joined in 2007. But Snjezana Bokulic, the Minority Rights Group International program officer for Europe, says that conditions for the Roma minority are “comparable to sub-Saharan Africa,” so, while European countries are likely to surpass most of the goals, “a segment of the population will be left out.” As for the goal of universal primary education, only 31 percent of Roma in Romania complete primary school, and Roma comprise between 2 and 10 percent of the population (depending on who’s counting), so the goal is unlikely to be met. “It’s an issue of mathematics,” says Bokulic.

Extrapolating from the non-data-collection on Roma in Europe, I assume that these reports are not being collected on indigenous and racial/ethnic minority groups here in the U.S. either.  That would be a worthy research project for someone to do is find out what percentage of indigenous and migrant workers children are enrolled in school.

In a rather striking example of what happens when you fail to take into account intersections of race, class and gender, the Millennium Development Goals include a specific provision calling for an end to gender disparity at all levels of education, but there is no similar targeting of disparity based on racial or ethnic difference. One observer from the Minority Rights Group calls this a “glaring omission.”  Maurice Bryan, who contributed the chapter on Latin America to the Minority Rights Group International report, says that no one realized it at the time, and goes on to say this:

“People didn’t used to think that you should pay special attention to women but once they realized that it was necessary, there has been progress on the gender gap. Now the racial gap is the new kid on the block.”

I found that a remarkable quote.  While it’s pointless to try and say which is “more” or “less” necessary – it’s both and – I was just found it interesting that at least according to Millennium Goals the idea of addressing of gender is more established than the idea of addressing racism and inequality.  If it’s still the case that 50-70 percent of the world’s children who are not in school are from ethnic or indigenous populations, then it seems long overdue to start addressing this form of inequality.

Rachel Maddow: Correcting the Record on Pat’s Racist Rant

Rachel Maddow took a few minutes at the end of last night’s show to correct the record on Pat Buchanan’s racist rant about ‘white men built this nation.’ In case you missed it, here’s what she said (6:58):

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I think she did a pretty good job on this. She gets bonus points from me for the line about affirmative action being necessary “so that we as a country don’t end up sealing in place forever a white supremacist society, created by and defined by segregation and Jim Crow.” What do you think about her rebuttal?